Restoring the Phoenix Naval Stores in Turkey Creek
When commercial development threatened the historic Gulf Coast community, activist and educator Derrick Evans and unabridged Architecture transformed a condemned structure into a space to remember.
In 2001, Derrick Evans, a successful Boston-based historian and educator, returned to his native Turkey Creek in Gulfport, Miss., to spend the winter holidays with family. While he was home, Evans couldn’t stop thinking about pervasive coastal sprawl. He’d spent years watching new runways constructed at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport just south of Turkey Creek, the widening of the state’s busiest highway to the west, and the creeping casino- and tourism-driven coastal development leeching from central Gulfport to the south. “I mean, hideous coastal sprawl,” Evans recalls.
Meanwhile, stalwart examples of coastal architecture, some featuring Mediterranean and Arabic influences, had been boarded up and forgotten as the city focused economic resources on “whatever development could be plunked into the wetlands adjacent to the interstate exits,” Evans says. “My whole world was being redeveloped grotesquely.”
Twenty years on, Evans has helped secure parts of Turkey Creek against this sprawl through preservation projects including the newly opened Phoenix Naval Stores. The museum lies on northern edge of the Turkey Creek community in Gulfport, Miss., welcoming residents and visitors into the historic area, founded by formerly enslaved people in 1866. The project is the result of a determined restoration collaboration between the Evans and the Bay St. Louis firm Unabridged Architecture to transform the building, a former paymaster’s office, which had been abandoned for decades and on the brink of demolition, into a site of community gathering and remembrance, marking a new chapter in the building’s century-long life.
The process began in the early aughts when Evans, fearing that the redevelopment could wind its way through Turkey Creek as the area underwent a comprehensive 25 year planning process, took action, writing a brief paper on the community’s historical significance and rich identity as a historically Black community. His work succeeded: Turkey Creek is now on the National Register of Historic Places. “Turkey Creek Community Historic District … represents a surviving example of a local community established by newly emancipated African Americans during the Reconstruction Era,” states the registration. “Unlike many other such communities, the Turkey Creek Community largely retains its historic geographic boundaries, residential nature, architectural heritage, and sense of community.”
But Evans wanted to do more. He began arranging to leave behind his rich life as an professor and landlord in Boston and reinvesting his savings back into Turkey Creek, buying up strategic parcels of marshlands that would buffer the community from “some developer who’s gonna come in and haul in a bunch of impervious red clay from north Mississippi, fill in a swamp, and put up a hotel,” Evans says.
One of those parcels included a termite-ridden structure overgrown with vines and surrounded by pine trees. The building, was so decrepit that its foundation had cracked, slowly sinking the structure into the marshy ground. Evans forgot about the building, which, along with most of Turkey Creek, flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Then in 2015, Evans was faced with a choice to tear the building down or take action, so he began researching the property’s history and original design with historian Jeff Rosenberg and Unabridged Architecture, aiming to restore the structure with funding from a National Parks Service 2018 Civil Rights Grant.
Originally constructed circa 1920, the building housed the paymaster’s office for the Yaryan Naval Stores Co., a manufacturing plant where workers boiled pine tree stumps in gasoline to extract creosote and turpentine, materials often used to waterproof naval ships of the era.
It was dangerous work and, in 1943, an explosion rocked the plant, killing 11 men, including nine Black Turkey Creek residents, bringing tragedy to the community. Miraculously, the paymaster’s office survived the explosion due to “its unique fireproof construction” of “3/4-inch-thick concrete plaster wrapped its sturdy, pine-framed walls, soffit, and roof, which was topped with metal for water resistance,” says unabridged principal Allison Anderson. “We had never encountered this method of construction before, and had to learn more about the original materials, such as Hy-Rib Metal Lath,” Anderson says.
After the explosion, the paymaster’s office was moved to a different location in Turkey Creek, about 1,000 feet from its original site, and transformed into a residential structure by local carpenter Thomas Benton Evans, Sr. The building served that purpose until the late 1990s, falling into disuse until Evans purchased the structure in 2003 and officially began the restoration in 2018.
There was little existing information about the building’s design so the restoration team, which included the local contractor Rip Daniels, learned by investigating structure itself. “There were no original windows remaining,” Anderson says. “We had to make educated guesses about the porch and the windows based on building conventions from the period of the structure and the remaining evidence embedded in the structure.”
Their attention also offered insight into the mastery and the craftsmanship behind the original building. “This building wasn’t built from a blueprint,” Evans explains. “Whatever went into this thing, the first time it was built was like someone’s mom’s best gumbo in that there’s no written recipe.”
In order to save the building’s foundation, the restorers lifted the building from the mud and guessed “at the original floor elevation of the structure,” Anderson says. “The building had to be shored up and raised incrementally, one-quarter inch at a time, at all four corners.”
Although the structure’s interior had been lost to time, the team uncovered more details embedded in the framing, including indications of an original wraparound porch. Some of the details, such as two original entry door frames—markers of segregated entrances for Black and white workers—were more sobering. The restorers worked painstakingly to restore the interior following 1920s conventions, celebrating when they found a trove of original beaded board in a shed tucked into the rear of the property. “It was like finding a treasure,” Anderson says.
In spite of the building’s mysteries, the team was intentional with the scope of their restoration work. “We reused almost every scrap of the remaining building materials, and retained many of the building’s imperfections and scars as part of the narrative,” Anderson says. “As a result, the building does not appear ‘new’ but as a part of the community fabric.”
After three years of work, the completed Phoenix Naval Stores building opened its doors in December to community members and visitors alike. In addition to serving as a l gathering place for many community elders, the humble structure creates a visual link between Turkey Creek and some of its surrounding industrial landscape. “It brings coherence to the community and its environments, which includes this toxic, contaminated industrial wasteland that some of which is currently inactive,” Evans says.
The Phoenix Naval Stores is also a community anchor where individuals can, quite literally, reflect on Turkey Creek as they watch the community from chairs on the porch, Evans notes. “I would hope that architects would value those kinds of things—anchoring a community, giving a community and a space, a reflection back on itself—as opposed to the new thing that I just plunk down here because we could do it.”